When I last saw John Howie Jr., it seemed like he was everywhere. I was in downtown Carrboro, North Carolina outside Chapel Hill a couple of springs back. On the streets downtown posters of the dashing Howie under his trademark cowboy hat were seen promoting his upcoming show with the Rosewood Bluff. Inside at Cat’s Cradle, he was doing double duty, fronting the alt-country band Two Dollar Pistols for the first time in ten years and then switching to drums to celebrate Sarah Shook and the Disarmers’ new album release. That night I was manning one of the cameras for director Gorman Bechard who was shooting a documentary about Shook that has just been released and is called What It Takes. A lot has changed since then. Howie and Shook are no longer a couple and Howie has left the Disarmers. This Fall he released Not Tonight (Suah Sounds), the solo album he’s been working on for three years, and one of the year’s best. The honky-tonk singer also has a strong screen presence in the documentary as he talks about his passion for country music. I caught up with him and talked about the album, country music, his love of drumming. life in the post-Disarmers world and his day job at the Bruce Springsteen fanzine Backstreets (for whom he recently wrote a piece about the Elvis Presley documentary, Elvis Presley: the Searcher.) He still seems everywhere at once. In addition to the Rosewood Bluff, Howie also performs solo shows and formed a small trio with Sarah Glasco on cello and Alec Ferrell on electric guitar and vocals. Howie beams with pride about the versatility of the Rosewood Bluff and his passion for the group. As he says, “It’s the only band that I’ve had or been in that I’ve considered having tattooed on myself.”
AH: Congratulations on the new album. What’s next for you?
I’m hoping to push the Not Tonight album some more, keep the shows coming, keep writing songs, the same stuff I’ve been doing. I think by now it’s clear that I’m in it for the long haul! We’ve got about a third of a Rosewood Bluff album done, so hopefully we’ll finish that up and get it out in 2019. My life is really, really good right now, better than it’s been in a long time. Last night one of my friends told me I looked more relaxed than he’d seen me in years. I get up, take my son to school, go to the office, pick my son up from school, help him with his homework, make dinner for us. When he goes to bed I pull out the guitar and work on songs, and on the weekends I play shows. It’s the good life, man, for sure. Could not ask for more.
AH: What’s your philosophy about Rosewood Bluff and where it fits in your life? How did it originate and continue?
JH: I started it when the Pistols first split in 2008. The goal was to have a bigger band than the Pistols, which was a four piece. I was lucky enough to get Nathan Golub on pedal steel, he’s been with me ever since. After the Pistols, I wanted to do something with my name out front, mostly because I know how musicians come and go like Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours, that kind of thing. I love the Rosewood Bluff. The Rosewood Bluff is MY band, it always will be, and I’m REALLY lucky to have the players I do. They can cover honky-tonk, swing, soulful stuff, country-rock, whatever. It’s the only band I’ve ever had/been in that I’ve considered having tattooed on myself. As long as I’m playing music, from here on out, that’ll be the name of my band, unless we’re doing one of those Pistols shows.
AH: You’re interesting in that you’re a drummer and a bandleader. How do you look at the different aspects of your musicality?
JH: Playing drums for me is kinda like stopping off at the bar for a beer is for a lot of people. It’s relaxing and low-stress because I’ve been doing it so long, but it is not what I want to do full-time, which is one of the reasons I left the Disarmers, I don’t want the drumming to be my primary creative outlet. Once a became a songwriter in my early 20’s, everything kinda changed, I just love the writing so much. From a practical standpoint, the songwriting has made me considerably more money than the drumming, so there’s that, too. But they’re different modes of expression. I still love drumming, but it’s not the same. They fulfill different needs.
AH: Tell me about how this record started and how you made it. Did you have all of the songs written?
JH: I had part of the song “Happy” written in early 2015, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I played it for Sarah, and she liked it and suggested I do a solo album because it didn’t really fit with the Bluff kinda stuff. Like a lot of creative people – I imagine – my sense of self-esteem can kind of fluctuate, so when a songwriter I really admire tells me they like something I’m working on, I’m gonna roll with that! So at that point I started really getting into the idea, I had never thought of it until she suggested it, and I’m not certain that I would have. Shortly after that conversation things in my personal life went south, and presto, here come the songs. So I went in to Rick Miller’s Kudzu Ranch Studios in Mebane and laid down some acoustic guitar tracks and vocals in April 2015, because I knew that I was gonna be busy drumming for the Disarmers, and I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to get back in the studio to work on my own stuff. After that, I just went in when I had time, got guests in there when I could, and eventually it got done. That it took a few years ended up being a good thing, some of the best performances on the album are by people that I didn’t even know when I started making it.
AH: In the documentary What it Takes, you have a scene where you talk about the time you saw Robin Hood and heard Roger Miller’s voice. When did you really start feeling and loving country music?
JH: I never stopped loving Roger Miller after I saw Robin Hood in the theater, and I grew up hearing country music. My dad loved Waylon, Willie, Haggard, Jones, etc. I turned my back on it as a teen, because I didn’t want to be associated with my folks’ tastes. Then at some point in my late teens I discovered the Burrito Brothers through the Stones, and I was off and running. By the time I was 22 I was obsessed with honky-tonk music. I was lucky, because my dad had a bunch of the old records, and I had a friend named Jon Miller in Durham who had a great honky-tonk collection, too, so I had access to it, which in those pre-reissue days was a huge deal. But Roger Miller and the Monkees, I’ve never stopped loving them, ever since I was little.
AH: I think you said in the doc that when you started playing drums in 6th grade things made sense. When did you discover your voice?
JH: Not until I was about 20, I was in a band in Raleigh called Finger. Brad Rice, who ended up playing for Whiskeytown, Son Volt, Tift Merritt and Keith Urban was the guitarist in Finger. The rule in Finger was if you wrote a song or the lyrics to a song, you had to sing it. I found I liked singing – even when tethered to a drum kit – and off I went. When I started writing songs in my mid-20’s that were not designed for a specific band, they came out honky-tonk country, which is what I thought would happen. That was it, I’ve never looked back since. As far as I’m concerned, that’s when I found my calling.
AH: What have you found most interesting about the history of country music? And what are your feelings about country today? In the doc you roll your eyes with the mention of Garth Brooks as if he was an interloper.
JH: Historically speaking, up until the 90’s, country music grew, evolved, changed, however you want to say it, without compromising its roots. Ernest Tubb took Jimmie Rodgers and kicked it up a notch, then Hank Williams did that with Tubb’s music, George Jones did that with Williams, and so on. I’m not against change or evolution, but current radio country music has abandoned all of the roots. I do not like radio country music at all. None of it. I find it to be soulless and contrived across the board, it couldn’t be farther from Charley Pride if it tried, which it seems to be doing. I love Kacey Musgraves and I dig some of the underground country stuff. But I consider Garth Brooks the beginning of the end. I’m old enough to remember when you could hear George Jones et al on the radio, but Garth’s arrival signaled the end of that. Anytime people start making the kind of money his records generated, art goes out the window, there’s no looking back. It’s been a steady downhill climb in the mainstream as far as I’m concerned ever since.
AH: What does “alt-country” mean to you?
JH: Back in the 90’s it seemed like a term that was used to describe music that was country or roots that was not contemporary radio country, but some people – musicians and journalists – would use it as an insult, like what you were doing was not legit somehow, like you were faking it or something, so it has a slightly negative connotation to me, as well. The Pistols got going during all that, which was kind of a coincidence, I’d had the idea to do it long before I got it together. But it also kinda helped, because all of a sudden you could reference Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn and people knew who you were talking about, musicians started getting into it. To me it’s just kind of sad that the term was even necessary. But I get it. I’m not really into all the different labels, I’m a honky-tonk country singer. That’s it.
AH: It was interesting in the documentary seeing some of the images flash by of your Two Dollar Pistols period. I think I caught a Grand Ole Opry pass. What was that experience like? What did you learn from leading the band over a decade?
JH: We played at Opryland in 2003, we were invited to play, it was almost a year after You Ruined Everything came out, it was the end of our tour supporting that album. Our dressing room was in the Opry building, so there we were, I was 34 years old back there with all these legends like Porter Wagoner, Jean Shepard, etc, I was freaking out, I was so nervous. But it was wonderful, everyone was really, really nice, it was kind of a dream come true. We were invited back in 2004 on the Hands Up tour, but our van’s transmission died in Hickory, NC and we couldn’t get there. It was heartbreaking.
The Pistols was much more of a democracy than the Rosewood Bluff, which can be difficult at times as a songwriter, because I know what I want, and I can be pretty stubborn about that.
AH: I was fortunate to be at the Two Dollar Pistols reunion show before the Disarmers set. What was the emotion like that night and your feelings? I have images of your son playing video games with Sarah’s son and one of the other sons from the Two Dollar Pistols. Do you see other reunions or reviving?
JH: That was tricky. When our drummer Matt Brown died in 2012 I swore that was the end of it. But Pistols bassist Mark O’Brien came to see the Rosewood Bluff and really liked the interplay between myself and drummer Dave Hartman. So he kinda pushed for that, then Sarah asked me about opening the “Sidelong” Bloodshot Records release show In April 2017, so I asked Matt’s widow, Laura, if she was okay with us doing it, and she gave me her blessing. I thought the show itself was marvelous, the band sounded great and it was really nice to play all those songs again. We did a couple shows that year with the Disarmers – always kinda odd to sing/play guitar and then switch to drums, but it was fun – and one in 2018 with 6 String Drag, and the Pistols are the band on “When I’m Not There With You” from Not Tonight. But most of my songs go to the solo project or the Rosewood Bluff, so doing Pistols shows – though it’s an awful lot of fun, and I think we sound great – it’s like it has its place, it has its own magic. But it’s not the main course of my life, if you dig, I don’t really write songs with that band in mind anymore. I’m into moving forward, always. I’m not against reunions per se, but to me the focus is what’s happening now.
AH: You told me it’s interesting that there are two break-up albums in the same year. What reaction did you have to Years? I thought it was all finished before you broke up. Didn’t you play on all songs?
JH: I’m the drummer on Years, all those songs were written before I left the Disarmers and recorded when Sarah and I were still living together. I didn’t think about it at the time – because songwriters write about their lives – anymore than I imagine Sarah thought about the Not Tonight material, the majority of which she heard. I mean, she helped me finish “She’ll Lose My Heart (I’ll Lose My Mind),” I gave her co-writing credit on that one, she wrote a few crucial lines. I love Years, and I love Sidelong, I’m really proud of the work I did on those albums and in the Disarmers as a whole. I don’t wanna speak for Sarah, but I can say for myself that when I was writing my stuff I wasn’t thinking, “This is a breakup album.” Because we weren’t broken up! It wasn’t until I left the Disarmers that I realized I had this little album that kinda documented the relationship falling apart. I was just writing about the issues in my life at the time, which, again, is par for the course for a songwriter.
AH: It was quite jarring when I saw the Disarmers tour poster without you in it. Could you have continued post break-up or was it untenable?
JH: I quit that band for a lot of very valid reasons, not just the relationship ending, though that was certainly part of it, that would have made it very difficult for me to remain in the band at the time. In the documentary, there’s talk about how the Disarmers weren’t gonna tour for more than two weeks at a time, because three of us were single parents. That went out the window within a few months of the documentary being filmed, and I was not into being away from my 11-year old son for months at a time, so we were already talking about at least getting a part-time, fill-in drummer. The other members of the band with kids were okay with being gone longer, which is their call, to each their own. But I was not into that, my son and I have a really great relationship, and I felt like being away from him for two months or more would have compromised that. Plus, the band was so busy that I no longer had time to pursue my own music, and I couldn’t stand that, it was driving me nuts. Also, I figured out a while ago that I’m just not one of those people who’s gonna be in the same relationship for decades, and I don’t mean that because of advancing age. It’s just not who I am, I’ve tried it, I’ve been married twice, it just doesn’t work for me. I was always hearing, “This is never gonna work, you’ve always got one foot out the door,” and though that wasn’t conscious, I can see now that it was probably true. I lost a lot – a relationship, a family, friends, a band, we had a side project punk duo, too – but it was either lose all that or lose myself, which is what was happening. And losing myself is not something I’m prepared to do.
AH: There’s the line in Sarah’s show when she talks about break-ups in small towns and says the question a couple faces is “Who gets the bar?” Was it like that in your situation? Is “Underground” about that and The Cave?
JH: I worked at the Cave for eight years, and I loved it, it was part of my life at the time, I would tour with the Pistols and work there when I was in town. But by the time I was in my mid-40’s, it just wasn’t my scene anymore. “Underground” is about becoming aware that there are some things you just can’t go back to. I loved the people who owned it at the time, and I loved my then-girlfriend who was working there. But it wasn’t my world anymore, which is fine, it was just interesting. I think I had this idea that it would just be the same as it was ten years before, with even some of the same people, and I found out that was not the case.
AH: On The album, although very reflective there’s a few zingers in your writing. You say “I don’t like people sayin’ I’m a clown.” Where did that come from?
“I don’t like the way they like to say/that I’m some kinda clown,” that’s just a part of the paranoia in that song.”I Don’t Feel Like Holdin’ You Tonight” is about being bummed that your partner stayed out all night, and the kind of paranoia and insecurity that being in that situation tends to cause. Or, it least, it causes that in me, or it did at the time. Imagining what kinds of things the people your partner is hanging out with are saying. Shaky emotional ground, to say the least, not healthy.
AH: There’s a line about everybody jumping on your train in “Never Could Say Yes”–and feeling old hanging out with kids…..”people talking about your band…” Was there an age gap that made things hard?
JH: I’m not sure if it’s the age gap so much as the experience gap, though maybe those two go hand in hand. I’m not sure. People grow, people change, situations change, things get tricky. You either navigate that stuff successfully, or you don’t. As you get older, it seems like there are less and less people your age who haven’t already kinda paired off for life, so you kinda have to forego the age difference thing. I know some people who make it work.
AH: Was this project cathartic in resolving a lot of the issues?
JH: Not Tonight was/is cathartic for a lot of reasons, though the only thing that was really gonna resolve all the issues was me moving on, so that’s what I’ve done. It’s like anything else, a job, living space, whatever. Sometimes you just say, “I gotta go!” And that’s what I did. That’s what resolved the issues, at least as far as I’m concerned.
AH: As a Springsteen fan, I’m really interested in your work with Backstreets. It’s a great community. What’s been most interesting thing for you?
JH: I got the Backstreets gig in 2005. I was about to get married, and I knew that if I was tending bar at night and touring a lot it would give me very little time to see my then-wife, so I wanted a daytime deal. I gotta say, I love it. The owner/editor is one of my best friends, we talk about music, film, literature, our lives…it’s amazing. I feel very fortunate. I’m a Tunnel of Love person. That’s my album. Which should come as no surprise to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of my tastes.
AH: What was it like interviewing Solomon Burke?
JH: One of the absolute high points of my entire life. He had just released his excellent, Buddy Miller-produced “Nashville” album. At the time, my then-wife was pregnant with my son, Dario, and Dr. Burke gave me a bunch of advice on that. “JOHN! You have got to get up EVERY DAY and say, ‘My love, you are the most BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN THE WORLD!'” He was incredible. He had one of the most beautiful voices ever, he’s one of my favorite singers, my dad gave me the crash course on him when I was in my 20’s.I love his records, all of them. He was wonderful, a lovely, lovely man.
AH: Nice job on the Elvis Presley movie piece. Do you like writing articles?
Thank you. I do enjoy it, it’s nice to focus on that, on someone else’s music, and do the research, etc. Lots of fun.
AH: Do you go to an office everyday?
JH: Not EVERY day, haha, but a lot of days, for sure. I look forward to it. I mean, I’m a 49-year old, tattooed, vegetarian, sideburn-having, bisexual, boot wearing freak. And I don’t have to hide any of that for the job. It’s fantastic.
AH: John thanks.